The Wayfarer's Book

10 Hidden Truths about Teaching English Abroad

When I chose to do a CELTA, I anticipated learning a lot about teaching – and I did. I learned to minimize my Teacher Talk Time, how to breakdown new vocabulary for students, and that I would some day need to know the phonemic script. The CELTA prepared me for the classroom in many practical ways, but there are some hidden truths about teaching English that don’t come up until you’re in the teachers’ room or in front of a class.

Holler if you hear me.

Hidden Truths about Teaching English Abroad _ CELTA Graduates

Me and my fellow bright-eyed CELTA candidates the day of graduation. Before any of us delved into our own, ‘real’ classrooms…

1. You’ll overanalyze the way you learn a language.

While teaching in Kiev, which is basically a bilingual city, I decided to study Russian – partially because my company offered me and two other new teachers a free crash course. Our instructor taught the way we did, the communicative approach with no native language help from her. It was hard, and I was a terrible student. At the end, she said I had a creative way of communicating. Hm. Still, I appreciated the strategies and felt like if I had continued that way I would have learned a lot.

I also downloaded Duolingo. It taught me to say useful things like, “Dad, this is not my motor.” There has to be a reason for this, I thought. But then again, I no longer have Duolingo on my phone.

My last attempt to learn Russian was to take private lessons. My teacher was wonderful and encouraging, but as we went through the book I learned how to say things like, “My mother is a secretary” and “I have two cars.” What I really needed to learn to say was “Where is the ice cream?” at the grocery and “This is a one-way street!” to my taxi driver.

The final straw came when I was struggling through a listening task and realized that the three female characters were named Anna, Inna, and Nina. Why would you do that to a beginner learner? You are setting them up to fail!

2. You’ll have to deal with racism in the classroom.

One evening, while monitoring my class, I walked by a teenage student who was doodling a swastika. WHAT. I nearly melted his desk with my laser eyes before he hastily scribbled it out.

While you will probably not get anything that radical, ignorant generalizations will pop up your classroom. I am still not great at handling prejudiced statements, mostly because they tend to come out of nowhere, like in the middle of a phrasal verb lesson. But I have, sadly, shut down the use of the n-word more than once. Often international students hear it in songs or movies and don’t understand the weight of it. In Ukraine, I even had students say that of course if they went to the States they wouldn’t use it, but they could use it at home.

“But not in my classroom,” I told them.

3. You’ll end up teaching the fossilized errors your students have.

Alright nerds, this one is for you. In my Ukrainian classrooms, students regularly organize relative clauses with question structures, ie. “It’s the best city which have I been.”

And I’ve heard this so much that I’ve ended up using it in hot corrections when there’s another problem in the sentence. If they’re using this structure and the wrong verb tense, I’ll hot-correct the verb tense only – but retain the incorrect clause structure. Oops.

4. You’ll have to defend your authority against usurping students.

There are know-it-all students all over the world. Give me a hryvnia for every time a student has said, “I’ve never heard it said like that before” or “My other teacher taught me this” — or my personal favorite, “My Irish/English/American friend has never said that.” I’ve learned to say, “Language is a fluid thing and there are many ways to express an idea.”

But sometimes, they’re right. Being a teacher also means that you’ll have to accept corrections from your students gracefully.

5. You’ll get jealous of other teachers.

Well, maybe this is just me, because I’m super competitive. But I want to be everyone’s favorite teacher. Not just because I have an amazing personality and an elevated sense of humor, but also because I’m the most effective teacher.

This is not real life, and also that would be way too much responsibility. Again, a little humility is not a bad thing. Besides, having excellent colleagues is a boon to you. You can mine all their experience and knowledge to make yourself a better teacher too.

Hidden Truths about Teaching English Abroad _ Teacher Appreciation Day

Also, I know that we as teachers are not supposed to have favorite students… But these guys ranked pretty high.

6. You’ll hear other teachers cr*p on teaching.

A lot of people get into teaching English for reasons other than their love of teaching. Or English. Even I was heavily influenced by teaching English as a means to travel.

So sometimes, other teachers gossip in the teachers’ room or after work about how much they dislike teaching. How they wish they could be doing something else. How other things are more important or more interesting or more impactful.

Ignore them and maintain your own focus. Surround yourself with people who encourage your own professional development. And even if teaching English is not your long-term career plan, please treat it with respect. Many other professionals and students depend on high quality in the TEFL industry. If you’re going to be part of it, uphold those standards.

7. You’ll feel lonely in the teachers’ room.

This, to me, was one of the most surprising hidden truths about teaching English because it seems impossible. A teachers’ room is always busy, half as big as it should be to fit in all the teachers grading tests, prepping lessons, and swapping activities. But even at peak chaos I’ve felt lonely in the teachers’ room because – and this is totally on me, I know – I don’t speak the local language.

Most of the discourse in the teachers’ room happens in L1. And while the local teachers can code switch between their native tongue and English with just a quick breath, I can only pick out a few words. As a result, I generally understand nothing of what happens around me at work. I don’t blame my coworkers. It’s natural and comfortable for them, and if I’m not needed in the conversation why would they need to speak in English? But it is isolating.

8. You’ll teach concepts, not just words.

Since I teach only in English and without translation, students and I often play this ‘game’ where we spend several minutes describing a word, using miming and drawing and examples, trying to find an exact match in the other language – with no result. One time I was asked what the English name is for the crook who finds rich families to rob and sells the information to other criminal gangs. A word that exists in Russian which has no translation in English.

Sometimes not having a direct translation is really annoying, because you’re now trying to teach not just a foreign word, but also a foreign concept. But in reality it’s a beautiful aspect of the learning process, gaining the ability to express ideas or feelings that you can’t in your own language.

Hidden Truths about Teaching English Abroad _ Student Teacher

I actually have very few pictures of me — or anyone — teaching, so here’s one I found online of someone who looks like she’s doing it right. Student Teacher (original) by Rex Pe is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

9. You’ll have to support your local colleagues.

There’s an archaic impression floating around the native English speakers make better English teachers. This is, on so many levels, a clearly flawed idea.

But sometimes, when I give students notice they’ll have a cover teacher, they’ll ask if it will be a local teacher or a native speaker. If I know who is scheduled, I’ll tell them, but I also say, “All of our teachers, local and expat, are highly qualified and experienced.” It’s not much, but I believe in making a point to students, no matter how small, while the industry works together to correct harmful practices.

This a complex discourse making its way through the TEFL industry right now, hopefully in a way to correct wrong beliefs and prevent prejudice. For now I’d like to say, there can be bad teachers that are native speakers and there can be bad teachers that are local teachers. There can be excellent native speaker teachers and excellent local teachers. If you have the privilege of being a native-speaking English teacher, it’s important that you advocate for your experienced, qualified colleagues who face an unfair system.

10. You’ll spend more time on phrasal verbs than you expect.

Always. And once you’re actually through all the meaning and form problems, the actual production activities? Give yourself time, lots of time. When you’re dealing with phrasal verbs, it’s rarely enough.

Have you had similar experiences? What hidden truths about teaching English did you learn once you got in the classroom?

10 Hidden Truths about Teaching English -- From professionalism to prejudice to phrasal verbs. Lessons I learned after I got my CELTA when I actually started teaching English.

The hidden truths about teaching English abroad that no one talks about – from professionalism to prejudice to phrasal verbs. Pin it and spread the word!

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14 thoughts on “10 Hidden Truths about Teaching English Abroad

  1. Mary

    Such good read! I am TEFL certified and have taught a little bit. But I decided it’s not for me mostly because I know I’m not good at it and it’s not fair to the students to pay me and not delivering. During my teaching time, I felt like I had to drag myself to the classroom, which is obviously not a good sign! I enjoyed the atmosphere with the students, they melt my heart! Maybe I’ll give it a try again one day!

  2. Suzie

    It worries me (and makes me a little sad) that a lot of people teach English abroad simply because they see it as an easy way to earn money. You definitely seem to be in it for the right reasons and it comes across that you really care about what and who you are teaching. I was a teacher back in the UK, and no form of teaching is easy, I’m glad you are sharing some of the truths to the job!

  3. Chiera

    Haa omg tell me about it! I haven’t done any long term TEFL placements but I agree with all of these! I’d love to do more TEFL teaching in the future!

  4. Ella

    This was a great post! I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching English abroad many times, admittedly because I wanted to travel more but also because I have experience and I didn’t think it would have been too much of a shock to me (I tutor English as a second language). But this post definitely opened my eyes to how hard it actually is and how much mental preparation you need to do before hand. Also, I love this sentence, “I also downloaded Duolingo. It taught me to say useful things like, “Dad, this is not my motor.” There has to be a reason for this, I thought. But then again, I no longer have Duolingo on my phone.” That made me laugh out loud :) haha.

  5. Nicole

    I agree with a lot of these. I’ve taught online for a year and a half while taking TEFL classes and now I’m teaching in Taiwan. I’ve only been in Taiwan for 3 months. so far, nothing crazy other than some stares and people commenting on my hair for being so cool looking and different, plus I’m tall so that always attracts a lot of attention no matter where I go haha. From my experience as an online teacher, I’ve gotten a lot of interesting comments and questions about being a black American from people of homogenous countries; they’ve ranged from curious to ignorant to downright stereotypical and racist. I’m surprised I managed to keep my cool in some of those encounters.

    I actually wrote a post that kinda goes hand in with yours, but on a broader scale.

  6. Nicole

    Really interesting read! I started a TEFL course around seven years ago but never went through with teaching abroad as I’m not sure teaching is for me but you’ve raised some interesting points that I wouldn’t even have thought about.

  7. Leah

    I’m a nurse in the US, but have been thinking about taking some time off so I can see what it’s like to live in another country. I think teaching English would be a great way to do that so I’ve been doing some research on it. Thanks for the tips.

  8. Sarah

    It blows my mind that so many people teach English and aren’t truly committed- it seems so hard! I appreciate your honesty and tips. And I love the bit about how there’s no English word for the crook… you’re right, that’s one of the best parts of learning another language – learning new words and concepts you can’t really translate.

  9. Carrie

    Great post, with a lot to think about for anyone considering teaching English abroad. I’ve toyed with the idea a few times and am still trying to decide if it’s for me. The most fascinating thing for me is about navigating foreign concepts — I think it’s so interesting to learn how things that can be expressed in one word in language A are so impossible to understand and describe in language B.

  10. Gabbski

    Really interesting read! Some good points there to consider before getting into teaching. I always just thought about the advantages of it – that you get to live in and experience other country.

  11. Sapna

    Such an interesting read. You are right some things we learn in day to day life. Different cultures have a different way of dealing and I am sure these experiences enriching you a lot.

  12. Sara

    That part about teachers complaining about how they hate teaching makes me sad. I teach abroad, but at international schools, and I come across so many people who do it for the wrong reason. It really is a disservice to the children when the teacher isn’t even into it. I have always wanted to be a teacher, teaching abroad only happened as a means to be able to teach (lack of jobs in Canada) and I just kept going with it.

  13. Sarah

    As someone who is moving to Mexico City in a few weeks and has been contemplating the prospect of becoming an English teach I found this super informative! There are definitely pros and cons to teaching (like any profession) but I definitely see it as a viable option in a country where I don’t speak the language fluently (yet!)

  14. Vicki

    Must be a pretty hard job to teach. I have never been a teacher but worked with kids in different ways and know how hard it can be to make them listen to you. But it is kind of sad how some teacher might bitch about teaching. Because from my experience you could often tell in the classes which teacher was passionate about his job and who wasn’t. And another thing… about the duolingo app. At first I thought it was so practical. But in the end you won’t use 99% of those sentences 😀 thank you for sharing your experience.

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